Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somnambulament: A Dialogue Between Night Me and Morning Me

NM: I get by by pretending you don't exist. 

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: I'm completely indifferent towards you, except for a modicum of abstract goodwill that disappears in the presence of some potential short-term gratification of desire.

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: I'm just gonna go play this video game. Until I beat it. Also, it is an RPG.

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: What's this - something to read? A newspaper from two weeks ago? I wonder what was happening two weeks ago! How engrossing! 

MM: I hate you, Night Me!

NM: I'm totally wanton!

MM: I hate you, Night Me! And therefore I resent myself. 

NM: Quit your pouting. I'm going for a walk and I don't care if it doesn't make sense to do so, at this hour, and in this weather. 

MM: I don't even exist half the time! Some days it's straight from Night Me to Early Afternoon Me! I believe you must recognize your culpability in this. 

NM: What? The intro from the movie "Persona"? And I can play it over as many times as I want?

MM: I have work today! 

NM: A panda sneezing on YouTube? Color me obsessed! 

MM: I had to use my personal day today! Because I was too tired to go in to work! 

NM: Recently, I saw the sun come up. We were watching the popular television series LOST.

MM: Our reputation has been irrevocably damaged! 

NM: My self-absorption may have grown. I feel I must blog about this. 

MM: I missed another breakfast appointment you bastard! 

NM:  The living room calls out to be rearranged - 

MM: I fell asleep while praying!

NM: There is no time like the present for cooking eggs and writing about the qualities I appreciate in a woman. 

MM: . . . 

NM: . . . 

MM: . . . 

NM: The things I do are important. 

whatcha doin, Night Me? "ALL THE THINGS!"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Favorite Weather: Drizzle

Everyone seems to make a big fuss about the first snow of the winter - so why not equally celebrate the first rain of the spring? I do not understand why we aren't more eager to see water-specked windows and those little rivulets that form en route to drainage pipes below street curbs. Rainy days are objectively better than snowy days; here are three good reasons to believe this.

  1. On a rainy day, a person may feel just as good about staying indoors with books and cups of hot tea as she would on a snow day; she is fully justified in giving herself permission to remain inside. However, God does her one better on a rainy day because she is additionally free from worrying about the looming prospect of shoveling the driveway / sidewalk in order to eventually leave.
  2. Rain cleanseth, whereas snow covereth over. Rain is therefore more beneficial and less deceptive than snow. Rain even mitigates certain problems that develop as a result of heavy snowfall, such as the salt residue that ends up on, well, almost everything during a midwestern winter. 
  3. Rain is like the joyful tears of angels in anticipation of the new season of growth and life in the world. Snow is like dandruff falling off their heads, which they scratch in befuddlement while trying to gain an insight into God's inscrutable decision to counterbalance the life of the world with a season of cold, death, and scarcity. 
So there you have it. Here are even some pictures of rain in different places around the world.

Chicago, Illinois

Paris, France

New York City, New York

The Taj Mahal, India

Petra, Jordan

Seattle, Washington

The Ocean, Unspecifically

The Great Plains, American West

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Lima, Ohio

Redwood Forest, California

Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Utrecht Canal, the Netherlands

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Day in the Life

The biggest question for an entire day can end up being "do I have milk?" And the most significant activity for an entire day can end up being the trip to the grocery store to get milk.

"What do you want to do tonight?"

I must check to see if anything has come for me, if there is anything I need to pick up or file away. I need to check my email, and my apartment mailbox, and then, if nothing has come, I settle for messages intended for me insofar as I am a member of a set, like a mailing list. For instance, I will read a magazine. Or I will read the news on the internet.

"Want to watch a movie? Want to play a video game?"

I don't know what exactly I am waiting for, but most of my time is spent passively deferring the present moment. If it is the afternoon, I anticipate the evening. I fill the time, or, the time ends up filled anyway. Or, in the least, it passes. It is punctuated biologically - I have to eat, and sleep, and drink, and bathe, and other things - but it is not punctuated spiritually without some impetus (usually of an external origin) sufficient to overcome the inertia of my drowsy soul.

"Have you eaten? Want to go out?"

I wait patiently for events. I do not often cause them. I do not often create a situation or an event that is compelling, either to me or to the people around me. When I do, it feels dangerous and risky. I wonder how it might be dismissed or criticized or laughed at. It is easier not to posit anything, but then, not positing anything is poisonous. So I wait to think about what I ought to posit.

"I am so angry; there were no parking spots left." 

How can the dishes come to mean so much? What kind of world permits the dishes to dominate an entire day? Even a couple of days? Why can't they just be the dishes? Who allowed the dishes to become a goal of their own? Why should the dishes cause me to feel anxiety and apprehension? Why is it that every move I make in the apartment is made with the dishes as a reference point? How could it be that the dishes are such a potent symbol? Why can't I figure out what the dishes are trying to communicate? Why can't I figure out the meaning of the dishes? Why don't we have any clean dishes? Why can't I do the dishes, if it is not my turn to do the dishes? What prevents me from fixing the problem of the dishes?

"I dunno, I might read or something. Let me know when you are coming back."

If I intend to be a paying customer, I can go almost anywhere. If I do not intend to be a paying customer, my options are limited. I cannot stay in many places for very long before I am asked to purchase something or leave. If I park my car and remain inside it, just to be able to sit for a while in a place that is not my apartment, I am approached with suspicion by the police. At night, I can stay inside my apartment, or drive, but that is about it. If I choose to drive, I do so without knowing where I will be able to stop and park, apart from my apartment parking lot. So, I mimic purposeful driving, and turn the mode of transportation into a destination of its own. It is like choosing to live in a hallway.

"Eh, nothing really happened today. I made a couple of sales. Almost made a grown man cry. Not in a happy way either; he was a grown man, and it was weird." 

Some days it feels hard to believe that the plans for our cities and suburbs began as ideas in the minds of actual people. The results seem more closely fit to a computer-generated model created for maximum efficiency and economic benefit. It would seem that the invisible hand, in addition to everything else it does, also shapes and forms our communities according to its inscrutable designs.

"There was this hipster today." 

When I was growing up I thought this was almost tragic: how a tall building could put so many people so close together without their being able to tell how near or similar they were to those above and below them. Sometimes, in big cities, I would wait, and watch, and wish that somehow, one of the people in the windows would brazenly defy the order of things and speak directly to the person on the floor above or below their own. I squinted so as not to miss the crazy possibility of this vertical dialogue. It would be nothing short of revolutionary! But my hope was pulled up short, and everyone in view spoke only to others on their level, if they spoke to anyone at all. I did not understand why the need to communicate could not overcome such apparently slight obstacles as floors and ceilings. Then I came to learn (or: I was taught) that I had been overestimating the need. Many people are perfectly content to quietly remain on one level for the duration of their lives. Rilke says that some people live as though pacing one strip of floorboards even though the entire house is open to be explored. It is easy to judge "those people," but then you see yourself pacing with them across that one small space, and so.

"If we put up some more pictures, the walls would not be so blank. But we're leaving soon enough so I dunno. If you want to pay for it, I guess."

After buying a bagel for dinner I almost threw away my change. This is because I have become so unaccustomed to paper money and coins that they felt like discardable waste in my hand. Used packaging.

"I reached for the glove that fell between the seat and the console, and pulled up something that I didn't recognize for the first couple seconds, and then I realized: this is an old banana peel! So I threw it out the window and two days later it is still there in the snow where it landed. Seriously, it was for, like, a couple seconds that I just couldn't even recognize it."

Gmail offers a status update option similar to that of Facebook. Implicitly, it also asks you, "what are you doing right now?" That is a damning question.

"But think about it. Wouldn't it be great to be a baker for a while? To be mentally and physically and maybe even emotionally involved in your work?" "What, in baking?"

If I lose my pen at work, I may become angry and unsympathetic towards others for the rest of the day. Should it concern a person, when the small things in his life are never just small things? When a healthy sense of right proportion in responding to his life's circumstances has been lost? Who gave so much power to traffic lights and automatic doors that are locked after a certain hour? Shouldn't emotions of this caliber be directed at something a little more consequential, with a little more heft?

"Well, the first thing I want to say is that I don't have any answers for you." 

A couple of weeks ago a car alarm went off, and it kept going off intermittently for days. Its obnoxious cadence would reemerge in the pauses of a conversation, in the silence after a movie, and at bedtime after lights-out. I laughed every time I heard it and swore at its impertinence. It persisted. I casually mentioned it in conversation with friends as one more example of the peculiarity of our lives. Finally I began inclining to receive a message from it, and at that point, it stopped.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Evil and Wickedness

and wickedness

Terry Eagleton produces delicious prose. His hybridized Catholic/Marxist perspective, coupled with tactical demonstrations of his brilliant wit and serious theoretical chops, make him an eminently worthwhile writer for serious, thoughtful, and thick-skinned readers. His recent book On Evil follows his established precedent with provocative riffs and reflections on a multifaceted conception of evil.

Eagleton's book reaches a controversial apex in the final pages, as he turns the inertia of the preceding study on the topic of terrorism. His problematic takes this form: ought we say that fanatics who strap bombs to their bodies are truly "evil," or do they rather fall under the more mundane and inclusive description "wicked?" Eagleton, somewhat unsurprisingly, takes the latter option, after some qualifications. The devil is in the details, as it were.

Eagleton's characterization of evil draws from a variety of sources, including medieval philosophical theology and Freudian psychoanalysis; ultimately he reduces the ontology of evil to a very limited domain. Evil is primarily, in his view, an existential malaise; it is a quality of being, and consequentially manifests as a quality of action. It is a rebellion against meaning and existence, an ultimate and paradoxical union of Milan Kundera's "angelic" and "demonic" faces of humanity as it abstracts reason from context and the senses in pursuit of the infinite while degrading the world into total meaninglessness. Value, to the evil person, is a false, empty, imposed idea that is foreign to the world it would presume to organize; death and nonbeing are, by contrast, objects of affection, the evil person's anti-values. Posing an historical example, Eagleton writes, "Nazism is a form of crazed idealism which is terrified of human fleshliness. But it is also one long jeering belch in the face of all such ideals. It is both too solemn and too sardonic - full of stiff-gestured bombast about Führer and Fatherland, yet cynical to its core." 

The union of hyperextended reason and cynical revulsion at the world are closely related, and the latter grows in proportion to the former. In Eagleton's words, "[t]he more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mess of sensation. The more abstracted reason becomes, the less men and women are able to live a meaningful creaturely life." Tragically, the despair produced by the disintegration of value and sense is the only real assurance the evil person has of his continued existence, which binds him to the maintenance of his despair. Although suicide would seem to be the natural culmination of this outlook, the fact of evil in a person is itself an expression of the insult that evil intends against being and goodness, and so, instead of expiring under the weight of his hopelessness, the evil person experiences Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," which does not permit a determinate end. Eagleton goes on to say that his despair is what gives the evil person a leg up on men and women of all kinds who subscribe to one or another framework of sense-making because his condition would seem to destroy the possibility of meaning or redemption; and so, in another paradoxical turn, the despair of the evil person ascribes to him an obscene spiritual superiority. Evil, manifest, seems to be a naked, perverted, unhindered will-to-power.

Wickedness is both a less complex thing, and a more common thing. Assuming a rational framework, wickedness would primarily reside in the quality of one's actions, and an empirical preponderance of wicked acts would lead to the inference of an individual's wickedness. In essence, wickedness is morally wrong action done in the pursuit of rational and even morally neutral or morally right ends. On a small scale, it is cutting off a person in traffic to make it on time to a job interview. Writ large, it results in the destruction of the homes and lives of innocent people in an attempt to force the hand of an unjust government. Or so Eagleton would argue. 

The key difference between evil and wickedness seems to be the presence of rationality. Evil people cannot in principle be reasoned with because there is no reason in what they do; unfiltered evil is an unreflective acting-out against Being itself with no goal or achievable end in mind. Radical irrationality is one of its constitutive aspects. By contrast, the wicked may be reasoned with, at least in theory, because they possess reasons for acting in the way that they do, no matter how poisoned or twisted the logic. Their means can be reprehensible and even unintelligible for a person with a different outlook, and this may still say nothing about the ultimate value or worth of their ends. 

Eagleton's final point is that these ends are what must be addressed, but these ends are also dismissed out of hand by the person who categorically labels, for example, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists as sheerly evil. Eagleton wishes to say that those who feel, as powerless international actors, that their only recourse is to acts of terrorism may have legitimate political and ideological grievances against the west that may serve as the raw material for a dialogue that could in turn represent a first step on a path towards some sort of reconciliation.* 

In this hypothetical dialogue, if both parties were to acknowledge the legitimate claims on the side of the other - perhaps if radical Islamic fundamentalists were to recognize, even through the tight strictures of their ascetic moral code, space for moral neutrality and moral goodness in the lives of westerners living in secular capitalist culture, and if westerners could see the ways in which the Arab world has been mistreated by western nations over the last several centuries through implicitly and explicitly imperialist programs, agendas, and policies - is it feasible that this newly discovered plane of mutual intelligibility could create room for rationally working out a peaceful resolution to this conflict of life-worlds that has set the tone for international affairs in the twenty-first century? 

At this point, I am unsure if this is a reasonable idea, or idealistic to a point of radical naïveté. I welcome comments intended to elucidate, add to, or call into question my characterization of a fascinating aspect of Eagleton's study.

Also, happy St. Valentine's Day! I hope that you are having, or planning to have, a wonderfully romantic time with your significant other, if you have one. Otherwise, happy Monday, I guess. 

*This is not to say that there are not terrorists for whom wanton violence and death have become ends in themselves.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


There was silence, and then


then, from the squeaky subject,
a furtive glance over and back -

then a surprised return glance
quickly withdrawn  -

but then,
another, deliberate, accusatory look

and then, finally,

(seconds after)

four eyes meet
and shame fills the noxious space between
two pairs of nostrils.

Thank God we have recourse to
otherwise we would probably